John Bell, the publisher (Biographical details)

John Bell, the publisher (publisher/printer; British; Male; 1745 - 1831)

Also known as

Bell, John


The British Library, near Exeter Exchange, Strand, London (1768-95) 90 Strand (1795) Southampton Street, Strand and Herbert Passage, Beaufort Buildings, Strand (1805-1815) The Apollo Press, Clare Court, Drury Lane (1813-19) ? 4 Brydges Street, Covent Garden, London (1820) [print 'sold at']


Bookseller and newspaper proprietor, notably of The Morning Post from 1772-1786, and Bell's Weekly Messenger, 1796-1819; his fashionable magazine La Belle Assemblée ran from 1790-1820. He also published a large number of actor portraits as part of his reprints (which see Burnim & Highfill).
The BM collection includes many illustrations to his four series of reprints which came out under the general title of 'Bell's British Library' (the following is a summary of more detailed information in Burnim and Highfill, pp.10-17):
1. Bell's Shakespeare, an "acting edition", published in 9 volumes, 1773, 1774 and 1775-78, and a "literary edition" in 20 volumes, 1785-88.
2. Bell's British Theatre, first published in 21 volumes,1776-78, 1780, 1781; supplement in 4 volumes without portraits, 1782-84; revived in 90 volumes with portraits after Samuel De Wilde,1791-93; further edition of 140 volumes published by George Cawthorn, 1797.
3. Bell's Poets of Great Britain, 1776-82, in 109 volumes.
4. Bell's Classical arrangement of fugitive poetry (being translations from Classics), 16 vols 1789-94.
These were all illustrated with high-quality plates, usually a title and a full-page, with one author portrait per group. As plates wore they were replaced and updated.
In 1792 Bell's English Theatre, an amalgam of parts of the Shakespeare and the British Theatre, was published in 14 volumes. After his first bankrupcy in 1793 much of his stock was acquired by James Barker who published the "acting" Shakespeare and sixty plays from the British Theatre in the following year. In 1795-96 Bell was involved in a law suit with George Cawthorn who was eventually awarded all future profits of the British Theatre and was allowed to use "The British Library" on his title pages; c. 1804, Cawthorn was succeeded by John Cawthorn (qq.v.). Bell was bankrupt again in 1797, but his fortunes revived and by his death at the age of 86 he owned a house in Fulham, carriages and horses, as well as a collection of works of art.
Two trade cards in Heal Collection: Heal,17.7 advertises "J: Bell... Bookseller and Publisher of the Poets of Great Britain from Chaucer to Churchill, Also Shakespears Plays the most elegant Edition, and The British Theatre &c. Where Gentlemen for their Libraries, merchants and Captains of Ships for Exportation, Booksellers and Shopkeepers to Sell again, may be supplied on the most reasonable Terms, with Books in Quires or in the various Plain and Ornamental Bindings. Also Stationary Wares of all sorts."; Heal,17.8 advertises "Opposition Defeated By Spirit, Perserverance and Elegance Exemplified in Bell's Publications, viz The Poets of Great Britain, The British Theatre, And Shakespear Complete."


K A Burnim & P H Highfill, 'John Bell, patron of British theatrical portraiture. A catalog of the theatrical editions of Bell's Shakespeare and Bell's British Theatre', Illinois University Press 1998
Thomas F Bonnell, 'The most disreputable trade', Oxford 2008, chapters 4 and 5
Stuart Sillars, 'The illustrated Shakespeare 1709-1875', 2008, chapter 4